Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 92 [9]

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Captain Cook's Kangaroos II

George Stubbs, ‘The Kongouro from New Holland’ (1773)

An inventory of the ‘specimens’ brought back to England on the Endeavour in 1771 includes two skulls of kangaroos and accompanying skins. We know that one of these skull/skin sets was given, in that year, by Joseph Banks to his friend, the famous anatomist John Hunter (said, for the number of animals wandering about his house, to have been the model for Doctor Doolittle), and that, although the fate of the skin is unknown (but see below), the skull might have eventually (and unfortunately) found its way into the Hunterian collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London – ‘unfortunately’ in that it was there destroyed during an air raid in the second world war. A photograph of this skull survived the conflict, at least long enough to be examined by experts, who declared (in 1950), that it was of an Eastern grey kangaroo. The photograph seems subsequently to have gone missing. We have therefore to accept the word of these experts. So much (guardedly) for one of the larger kangaroos, then. What of the other?


Daniel Solander, a Swede and Banks’ principal naturalist on the Endeavour, left a detailed description of the kangaroos of Endeavour River, and, although he seems to have confused the issue by using two and perhaps all three of the creatures killed to form a composite portrait, and seems to have missed the fact that these were marsupials (but if he saw only males…), records usefully that these kangaroos (/this kangaroo) had a naked rhinarium. Would it be safe, then, to say that, if one of these two skin/skull combinations was of an Eastern grey, the other was of an Eastern wallaroo? Yes and no. An interesting paper of 1937 (Iredale and Troughton) argues that one of these may have been a Whiptail wallaby, pointing out, amongst other supporting factors, that Whiptails, too, have a naked rhinarium. I won’t say that it rages, but the debate has gone on for many decades now and shows no real sign on settling..


Ultimately, unless we fixate upon the first creature shot, to speak of the identity of ‘Captain Cook’s kangaroo’ in the singular is rather pointless. Clearly there were three of them, and these three were of at least two different species, maybe even of three.


The concern-to-identify might not have been quite so preoccupying had it not been for the striking painting of a kangaroo – ‘The Kongouro from New Holland’ – executed by George Stubbs, the preeminent English animal painter of the time (famous for his dogs and horses), in 1772/3. Since there was no live kangaroo who might have sat for the portrait, it seems Banks prevailed upon Hunter to lend Stubbs the skull and skin he had given him, and at the same time furnished Stubbs off his own bat with a number of Sydney Parkinson’s kangaroo sketches (Parkinson had died at sea on the return voyage). The species of Stubbs’ kangaroo was, therefore, potentially mixed from the start. His sense of the kangaroo was perhaps further distorted by the skin itself, which he is said to have either had sewn up and inflated or had stuffed, in order to get a better three-dimensional sense of the creature. Some distortion was perhaps inevitable. The kangaroo he eventually produced, beautiful as in many ways it is, has skeletal and muscular definition of a child’s soft toy: it has no shoulders, no biceps, no strength, no resistance. Apart from some lightening on the chest and belly it is of a uniform light-grey mouse-colour. Its rhinarium is covered with the same fur. In a way, it has been stripped of any species particulars. Little wonder, then that modern viewers can find themselves wondering what species it is.


For twenty years, a foundational twenty years, until the ships of the First Fleet returned with more information, this painting, in itself and through its versions (several key engravings were published), was all that there was – was what was known. Anyone who wished to represent the kangaroo during this time, and there were many, had to use Stubbs as a guide (Parkinson’s sketches, little more that they might have been able to add, were not published). Stubbs’ painting was therefore remarkably influential in forming the nineteenth century’s image of the kangaroo – so influential, indeed (it is still, perhaps, the best-known painting of a kangaroo), that we cannot yet be sure that we (or our living kangaroos) are yet totally free of it. Even now, nearly two hundred and fifty years later, one of our hardest tasks in advocating for kangaroos and redressing the immense crimes against them is sorting out the spin – the dressing – from the reality.


A composite creature, Captain Cook’s kangaroo, with many of its features effectually effaced. A creature that, as much as it resembled creatures who did, did not actually exist. A being that has been seen with – created by – a kind of inadvertent tunnel vision. A being that has been given much of his most attractive features by the potent imagination of the artist. Hard to explain why, but it smacks of a creature repressed; re-dressed by a colonial power so that it might become/remain/be seen as subordinate. But that is another story (or is it?): if you want to subjugate a tribe/people, it’s said, the worst thing you can do is get to know them.


But let’s look on the bright side. Little by little we might be able to do something about that.